Focus acquisition speed and accuracy
The lens focuses well when there is sufficient light and when shooting at shorter focal lengths below 200mm. As you get closer to 300mm and f/5.6, the AF accuracy starts to suffer a little, similar to what the 28-300mm does, but it is not bad. I had a few cases when the lens would not focus at all at 300mm, which I was able to address by pointing the lens to a different spot, then half-pressing the shutter or pressing the AF-ON button again. The AF performance is slow – it certainly felt slower than on the Nikon 70-300mm VR lens. Subject tracking worked OK for the most part, occasionally producing out-of-focus images. Once I got used to how the lens autofocuses and learned how to operate it under various conditions, it certainly got easier to work with. Take a look at the following hawk shot that I captured at 300mm (100% crop):
The hawk was just cruising above me, so I did not have to track focus – the lens just acquired focus at once and I took a couple of images. I cropped the image in Lightroom and added some sharpness.
When focusing in low-light, you might notice the lens hunting, which is certainly annoying. Obviously, the 55-300 is not a good candidate for any kind of indoor/low-light photography, unless flashes are used.
Lens Sharpness and Contrast
When it comes to lens sharpness, the 55-300 performs very well between 55 to 135mm and starts losing just a touch of sharpness towards 300mm across the frame. The center is pretty sharp throughout the focal range, with the corners being slightly soft when shooting wide open. As you stop down the lens, both the center and the corners improve considerably, with f/8 being the sweet spot at short focal lengths and f/11 at the long focal lengths above 200mm. Check out the following image to see how sharp the lens can be:
Click here to download the full-size version of the file (7.7 MB).
As you can see, the lens is capable of producing great results when shot at f/8.0.
Vibration Reduction – VR II
The new Vibration Reduction (VR) system in this lens is superb and works great! I shot the 55-300mm hand-held most of the time and used a tripod only for lab and outdoor testing. Thanks to vibration reduction, I was able to shoot at slow shutter speeds and still get sharp images of non-moving subjects. VR can be turned on/off through a switch on the side of the lens. Compared to the 70-300mm VR lens, it has no VR modes like “Normal” and “Active”, which I personally do not miss, since I rarely change VR from Normal to Active. When shooting from a tripod, do not forget to turn VR off.